An Account of the Attack on Fort Erie
by an Officer of the 41st Regiment
The original account is in the United Service Journal, and Military and Naval Magazine, vol. 37 (1841), 87-90. It was provided to us through the friendship and generosity of prominent Canadian historian Donald E. Graves. The account is part of his research into his upcoming book on 1814 and Fort Erie.
The author of this account was Lieutenant Harris Cooke Hailes, born in New Brunswick, commissioned in the New Brunswick Fencibles in 1808 and appointed a Lieutenant in the 41st Regiment of Foot in 1810.
Hailes served as a Lieutenant in the 41st in Canada during the War of 1812 – 14. During the attack on Fort Meigs on the Miami he was held prisoner by the Americans from 3 to 5 May 1812: he was again taken prisoner at Moraviantown. After his release from captivity in Kentucky, he returned to the 41st Regiment in time to take part in the siege and attack on Fort Erie.
This account is a post war recollection when he was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Canadian Fencibles.
Here is his account:
Statement of Colonel H, (of the British Service.):
We assaulted Fort Erie about two o'clock on the morning of 15th August, 1814. The plan of attack, as nearly as I can recollect, was as follows:
The right column of attack, under Colonel Fisher, of De Watteville's Regiment, was composed of 8th Regt., light company 100th Regt., and De Watteville's; destined to attack that part of the fortress called Snake Hill.
The centre column, under Colonel Drummond, of 104th Regt., composed of a party of seamen, flank companies of the 41st and 104th Regts.; to attack the angle of the fort nearest the river, or, indeed, the lake.
Left column, under Colonel Scott, of the 103rd Regt., was composed of the 103rd Regt., and was destined to attack at the water's edge, break through the breastwork, and enter the fort, if possible, by the gate fronting the water.
On the night previous to the assault, Capt. Dobbs, of the Navy, with a party of seamen, carried some boats from the river in rear of the fort, and hauled them above Snake Hill into the lake. Taking advantage of a dark night, they actually dropped down with the current, and captured two small schooners, anchored in front of the fort, and armed with long guns, which had been placed there to annoy the flank of the besiegers. This surprise and capture was well conceived and gallantly executed. A Lieutenant of the Navy, Ratcliffe, was killed, with a very trifling proportion of men.
Next day Sir Gordon Drummond issued an order, eulogising Capt. Dobbs and his seamen, calling upon the army to volunteer to storm the fort, and to emulate the conduct of the naval party. Accordingly, the army did volunteer, with the exception of Colonel Gordon and the Royals, Colonel Gordon remarking that his Regt. was ready for any service they might be wanted for, and, therefore, their volunteering was useless. This, I have heard, was not very well received at head-quarters; but I merely write from report current in the camp at the moment, not vouching for its truth.
There was also an order that the flints were to be taken out of the muskets, and that the troops were to move to the assault with the bayonet, of which they were recommended to make free use. Alas! if this absurd order had not been issued I have no sort of doubt that we should have carried the fortress.
The right column of attack was to have been commanded and led by Major-General Conran; but his horse having, unfortunately, the day previously, fallen with him, his leg was dreadfully fractured, and he was taken to the rear. Colonel Fisher, of De Watteville's Regt., the next senior, consequently fell into the command.
The forlorn hope of this column was led by Major Powell, then on the Staff, and Lieut. Brooke Young, of the King's Regt. These gallant officers, after a good deal of difficulty, got into the fort, and, after having done so, Powell* called out, 'Now, my men, open your fire.' To their horror the flints were wanting. The consequence was, that although they were gallantly supported, particularly by the King's and 100th, (De Watteville's giving way,) the whole party was forced back, and a fire sent amongst them which they could not return, nor stand against. The loss this column sustained I am unable to state.
The centre column was commanded by Lieut.-Colonel Drummond, of the 104th Regt. The seamen and some soldiers proceeded, carrying the ladders. We were received with a heavy fire, and most of the men carrying the ladders were knocked down. Capt. O'Keefe, of the 41st Regt., a volunteer, and not belonging to either of the flank companies, succeeded in getting a ladder up to the battery, and it was shortly carried, by this single ladder, by the seamen and the 41st Regt., in a most determined and gallant manner. The order for taking out the flints was countermanded by Colonel Drummond; at least, I know that the companies I belonged to went into the action with them.
Colonel Drummond was killed very early in the affray, and the command of the column devolved upon Brevet-Major Glew, light company, 41st Regt.; but this officer being wounded, Capt. Bullock, 41st Grenadiers, became the senior of the second column. Some time after getting into the battery, Capt. Bullock observed to the writer of these notes, 'You, as well as myself, have been quartered in the stone buildings; collect what men you can of the light company, join me, and attempt to get possession of the barracks,' which, as I have before observed, were of stone, and strongly loopholed. We succeeded in getting into the lower part of the building, but met with such a violent resistance that we were quickly driven out, the Captain having been seriously wounded in the head, and obliged to leave the fortress. Shortly after this I was myself wounded, and taken to the rear.
The third column was led by Lieutenant-Colonel Scott, 103rd Regt., and was called the water column, it being destined to break through the breastwork which was carried from the battery to the water's edge; and, if they succeeded, they were to push for the gate of the fortress fronting the lake. Failing in this, Colonel Scott made for the battery already carried by the second column, and a scene of great confusion ensued. The Colonel entered the fort, and, of course, assumed the command. We had already got in rear of the breastwork, and had opened a fire upon the Americans, by which they must have been driven from their entrenchments; but the Colonel rebuking the officer, the firing was ordered to cease.** Almost at this moment this gallant soldier received a wound which was mortal, and which deprived his country, in a very short period, of his valuable life and services.
When I quitted the principal battery the fort was in our possession, and I perfectly recollect saying, as I passed to the rear, to some of the Staff, 'For God's sake push on the reserve, (consisting of the Royals and Glengarry Riflemen,) and the fort is yours.' Shortly after this the battery was blown up, and a tremendous loss of life ensued.
Of the 8 officers of the 41st Regt. that went to the assault, 2 Captains and 2 Subalterns were wounded, 1 Subaltern killed, and 1 taken inside the fort after the explosion. The two companies, out of 160 rank and file that went into action, scarcely mustered 50 men afterwards, and the total loss of the whole amounted to nearly 800 men killed and wounded.
From this period the General commanding made a close investment of the place; but the breaching batteries were at too great a distance, and several sorties were made by the enemy. The first, if my recollection serves me right, was about the 4th Sept., in which they signally failed; the second was on the 17th of the same month, when they were equally unsuccessful, and the work of destruction was complete.
The batteries were in the keeping of De Watteville's Regt. and the Royals. The former regiment, composed of vagabonds from the hulks, and in no way to be depended upon, gave way, and the Royals, a weak regiment, were overpowered. Their much-beloved Colonel (Gordon) fell. This was greatly to their disadvantage: he was a good and gallant soldier, and much regretted by the whole Army.
The Americans boast of upwards of 300 prisoners; but this is not the fact. A number of De Watteville's Regt. deserted, as also some of the Royals; but they took very few, if any, prisoners. Those batteries were nobly retaken by the gallant old 6th and 82nd Regts.; and the American attacking party was severely and roughly handled by these two regiments.
I must here remark that, if any other corps in the Army had had the charge of the batteries, except the De Wattevilles, the disgrace of losing them would never have occurred. Shortly after this event the army retreated to the Chippewa, where I rejoined from sick quarters. There was subsequently little or nothing done on either side, and late in the autumn we embarked on board the fleet, and sailed for Kingston and Montreal, where we arrived before the navigation closed, and mustered at Trois Rivieres. In the following spring we embarked at Quebec for Europe, peace having taken place with America; and, in consequence of the useless loss of time in lying and waiting at Quebec, the army arrived too late for Waterloo.
* Powell died as Lieut.-Col. in Command of the 40th Regt., in Bombay Presidency.
** How cool, how beautiful; he was only endeavouring to carry out, to the letter, the ill-judged order of his superior!